Death on the stage is revered by those who have the benefit of living to remember it. Elvis Costello once stumbled through some comments on Sid James at Sunderland’s Empire Theatre just weeks before a global pandemic ruled out any chance of someone breathing their last on its stage. Ian Cognito did it the year before, death on the stage and in such circumstances that people believed it was part of his act. Some will say there is never a greater way to bow out than on a stage that represented the artist, in a build-up that made it appear he was joking. Ian Cognito would probably disagree if he could still speak, but Ian Cognito: A Life and A Death On Stage works through the striking, influential work of an unsung comedy great.
He managed to live away from the spotlight of the stage and how the hell he did it, nobody knows, as an apt little jingle declares in the documentary opening. An ensemble of revered comedians and rightly lauded professionals, Stewart Lee and James Acaster at the head of that charge, are brought in and thrown in front of a camera to wax off on Cognito. They are experts not in the sense of relevance to the field but in the knowledge of their speciality. Talking heads are selected not for their notoriety but for their usefulness. Joe Bor and Danny Ward team together and provide not just a look into the life of Cognito but the cutthroat world of small-time comedy clubs. Harry Enfield booed off the stage, a repeated joke receiving three encores from another act which followed. Massive explosions of fascinating people are thrown in and talk up the brilliance.
He managed to keep a mystique in an always-online audience. He was feared and loved by those that had chance encounters with him behind, in front and on the stage. Cognito feels like the comedian’s comedian, as Lee often describes the unsung legends of the stage that have moved on or had audiences move on from them. Ian Cognito is a well-placed documentary, a shining light in a period that feels like comedy is growing and getting better. Regret is the key takeaway from this documentary for those that never saw him live. No live DVDs, no Christmas release. There he was on the stage, toiling away for decades, snubbed until his demise. He set the standard and hammered through with incredible results, the splatters of stage clips from here are proof enough.
Tommy Cooper and Eric Morecambe dropped dead on the stage too. They are now part of a disturbingly consistent legacy. James as well. Cognito is too. For some living comedians, their best chance of a legacy now would be to drop dead on stage. If the wood below them proved to be their final place of life, then it would do more for them than their sell-out tours and expressionless, everyman comedy ever would. Cognito would announce himself to an audience by sometimes nailing his hat to a wall with a hammer he would bring on stage. His post-punk roots shuffled through and found this way of blurring reality and stage presence. Performance art? It feels like an empty term to use now, but it does get close.